Novelist Explores Book Groups,
Burr's You or Someone Like You, the wife of a
powerful Hollywood executive unexpectedly finds herself at the
helm of a popular book group. Critic Maureen Corrigan calls it
a "smart novel" that offers "a very tough reflection on the
idea of 'group-ness' itself"
Burr's debut novel, You or Someone Like You, is a
must-read for any book group serious enough to spend more time
discussing the book at hand instead of what wine to serve
during the meeting. Burr's novel is about such a serious book
group — one that tackles "off-road" authors like William
Golding, Anthony Trollope, William Blake and Christina
Rossetti. The group is formed in Hollywood of all places,
where, as our main character observes, people talk on the
phone all day long and, thus, put an "immense value ... on
language"; yet, have an "utter disdain for the written word."
But the book-group plot constitutes only one of the
unfolding stories in this smart novel, which is, primarily, a
very tough reflection on the idea of "group-ness" itself —
who's in and who's out; who's considered a full person and
You or Someone Like You is sure to stir up
controversy because it doesn't just stick to the safe pieties
of descrying discrimination in terms of race or gender;
instead, it confronts what it sees as a more socially
acceptable form of discrimination practiced by organized
religion — specifically here, Judaism. Even raising the issue
of whether Jewish solidarity is a form of self-preservation or
exclusivity probably will invite accusations of anti-Semitism
to be tossed at this novel. But Burr, like his main character,
Anne Rosenbaum, clearly subscribes to the view that one
distinguishing mark of a good piece of literature is that it
doesn't set out to please everybody.
The gist of the story is this: Anne and her husband,
Howard, met decades ago at Columbia University. Both were
word-drunk English majors: Anne was a transplanted English
Protestant girl; Howard hailed from an Orthodox family in
Brooklyn. Against his parent's protests, they married.
When the novel opens, they've been living in Hollywood for
decades, where Howard is a movie studio wheeler-dealer with
ties to the New York literary world, and the more retiring
Anne takes pleasure in books and her garden. During a business
dinner, a studio exec turns to Anne, who's renowned for always
carrying a book with her, and proposes that she make up a
recommended reading list. The list circulates, and soon Anne
finds herself leading book groups where the likes of producers
and script doctors are going mano-a-mano about
Naturally, Burr can't resist cracking jokes about book
group eating rituals. Anne tells us that:
The unwritten rule was that [the
participants] brought dessert. In typical industry fashion,
like emerging nuclear powers, they rapidly escalated the
desserts in intricacy and number and size and exoticism and,
quite predictably, cost. ...
The [Virginia] Woolf
dessert was appropriate in size (small), but it cost eight
hundred dollars and came in four cream-colored bamboo boxes
lined in silver paper and tied with raw Andalusian
While Anne has her head in books, Howard, reacting to a
deep family insult, finds himself drawn back more and more
into the world of Orthodox Judaism that he left when he
married Anne. She fiercely tries to hold onto him, and when he
shuts her out, she communicates to him through the literature
of her book clubs.
Anne sees herself as a universalist, like her beloved W.H.
Auden who left England to settle in "a chaotic New York." Even
as Howard engages in a search for origins, Anne defiantly
counters with Auden's view that home is the place you choose.
Literary as she may be, Anne also flings "unpoetic" words like
"tribalism," "racism" and "bigotry" at the increasingly
When does cultural pride transform into cultural arrogance?
It's an uneasy question we consider daily in this mixed-up
democracy of ours, most recently with the controversy over
whether Sonia Sotomayor's Hispanic pride remarks are or are
not "racist." Burr's provocative new novel weighs in on the
issue of identity politics and also makes a powerful case for
why great books are a great danger to small minds.